Setting the Climate for Effective Teaching and Learning

(Burton R. Sisco)

Chapter Five in

Creating Environments for Effective Adult Learning

Roger Hiemstra (Editor)

New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education

Number 50, Summer 1991

Ralph B. Brockett, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Alan B. Knox, University of Wisconsin, Madison, CONSULTING EDITOR


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The process of teaching and learning success begins during the first encounter between instructor and students and develops thereafter.

Setting the Climate for Effective Teaching and Learning

Burton R. Sisco

Mary White had just returned from an exhilarating night at her local community college where she had begun a course on "Life Work Planning." She had been away from school for nearly twenty years, and after raising two children and surviving an unpleasant divorce, she was looking forward to starting a career in retail sales. Years before, her father had been a successful clothier in the small town where she grew up, and during summers she worked in the store. Mary had many fond memories of this experience and hoped to one day start her own clothing business. But before doing so, she needed to learn more about operating a small business and developing a business plan.

Several weeks earlier, Mary had been discussing her plans with a friend who suggested that she contact the career-planning office of the local community college for assistance. Mary was pleased to learn of a new small business certificate program that sounded good. But before jumping in, the counselor suggested she take the "Life Work Planning" course as a way of clarifying her goals and building confidence.

Now that the first class session was over, Mary could hardly restrain herself. Many good things had happened during the evening. She thought how neat the other twelve students were and how competent and caring the instructor seemed to be. She was impressed by how quickly the time went, noting that two and one-half hours is a long time to sit, but a short break was included in the middle of the session. She also recalled how her initial anxiety gave way to calm as she learned about the other participants and their reasons for taking the course. The instructor had made her feel comfortable and confident that her life experiences were of value. "Yes,"

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Mary said to herself, "I think I'm going to enjoy this class and the people in it. I'm glad the counselor suggested I take it first. I can't wait for our next meeting!"

Most instructors would be elated to have someone like Mary in class since she seems so enthusiastic and ready to learn. She represents the epitome of a motivated learner, the kind often idealized in adult education literature. But a closer reading of Mary's story reveals certain anxieties associated with the teaching and learning process that, left unchecked, could make the difference between success and failure for teacher and student alike. There are thousands of adults like Mary who approach a new course or workshop with varying degrees of anxiety. For some, the thought of returning to school after a long interruption may cause physical or psychological pain as they wonder whether they can still learn and keep up. For others who have been frequent participants in continuing professional education activities, the pressure of balancing work responsibilities and academic assignments may lead to personality changes.

Successful instructors are aware of the wide range of anxieties that adults bring to the classroom and make an effort to deal with them early. They realize that the first session is crucial to the eventual success of that undertaking. By creating a climate in which each participant can feel comfortable, secure, and able to learn, they have created the conditions for successful teaching and learning.

This chapter addresses the importance of climate setting as a means for enhancing the teaching and learning environment. Particular emphasis is placed on the importance of the first time an instructor meets with learners and how this can ensure subsequent success in the teaching and learning process. Such issues as planning for the first session, using icebreakers, and monitoring the learning environment are discussed. Finally, a model for organizing the first session's work is described, followed by concluding comments.

Climate Setting Defined

Most of us have a fairly good idea of what the term climate means. With respect to a geographical place or region, climate refers to the typical weather patterns based on time of the year. But climate can carry another connotation such as a prevailing condition, atmosphere, or ambiance; this meaning is the chapter's focus in the context of teaching and learning, particularly with adults.

A few years ago, Apps (1985, 1989) described a process of helping teachers and other adult educators analyze what it is they do. An early part of this analysis involves critical examination of the assumptions we make about our role as teachers and of those we make about the nature and role of our adult students and the teaching-learning transaction. Apps used metaphors to help participants clarify their assumptions about the teaching and

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learning process. For example, two instructors offering the same noncredit workshop on financial planning at the local night school can operate very differently. The first instructor organizes and teaches the class along fairly traditional lines. The syllabus is clearly laid out with course objectives described in performance terms. The main teaching technique is a lecture, participants are seated in five rows, and the instructor uses only personal examples rather than selecting examples from the group.

In contrast, the second instructor has a syllabus, but this is contained in a workbook along with other items such as learning activity descriptions, suggested course objectives, and related reading materials. The seating pattern of the class is semicircular ("sociopetal," as defined by Vosko, this volume), so each participant can see one another, and the instructor can have small groups working on a common learning activity. Clearly, the two instructors are engaging learners and operationalizing the teaching-learning transaction in different ways.

Thinking metaphorically, how can we describe the methods by which the two instructors teach the financial planning course? The first instructor is following the learner-as-machine metaphor. This instructor uses a prescriptive teaching approach and encourages a passive role for learners. In contrast, the second instructor sees the teaching-learning transaction as an opportunity for learners to grow and develop using personal experience. Learners are encouraged to relate their experience to the course content with the instructor serving as a process facilitator. In this situation, the appropriate metaphor might be learner-as-flower, noting the developmental emphasis implicit in the experience.

The process of climate setting can also be analyzed metaphorically, since it makes a number of assumptions regarding adults as learners and regarding the aims of educators and their beliefs about content and process and the teaching-learning transaction (Apps, 1989). In this chapter, climate setting is used as a metaphor for effective teaching, particularly with adults. This approach is based on the notion that adults are mature individuals who want to be treated as such. They tend to be diverse in nature, owing to the breadth of their experiences, and have a nascent need to direct their own learning. Because of these conditions, it is important for instructors to create climates early in the learning experience that not only acknowledge such assumptions about adults but also enable the assumptions to surface in the teaching and learning process.

Other adult education writers agree with this posture and support the idea of climate setting, although different terminology may be used. One of the best-known advocates of climate setting is Knowles (1980), who sees it as tantamount to helping people learn. He specifically uses the term educative environment as analogous to climate setting to describe those conditions that promote the growth and development of adults. These conditions include "(1) respect for personality; (2) participation in decision making; (3) freedom

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of expression and availability of information; and (4) mutuality of responsibility in defining goals, planning and conducting activities, and evaluating" (Knowles, 1980, p. 67).

Another advocate for climate setting is Knox (1986), who focuses on the task of building supportive and active learning environments, especially during the first session. While acknowledging that some adults resist active participation because of its excessive effort, responsibility, and risk, most actually thrive under such conditions if they are supported and challenged early. Knox (1986, pp. 132-134) suggests a number of ways that an instructor can create a supportive and challenging setting, especially during the first session: choose attractive facilities that participants are likely to find hospitable and comfortable, help participants get acquainted with each other, present oneself as a person, reduce apprehension by using icebreakers or warm-up activities that reflect empathy and learner advocacy, encourage active participation by having participants introduce themselves, provide an overview of the course or workshop content, obtain feedback from participants about their initial reactions, encourage the return to the learning experience by emphasizing success, be available for informal conversation, review and summarize the first session, and provide an advance organizer of what will occur during the next class session.

Still another supporter of climate setting is Brookfield (1990), who believes that the building of trust is essential for meaningful learning. He identifies a number of characteristics that make instructors more trustworthy in the eyes of students, including teacher credibility and authenticity. According to Brookfield (1990, pp. 163-164), "Teacher credibility refers to teachers' ability to present themselves as people with something to offer students. When teachers have this credibility, students see them as possessing a breadth of knowledge, depth of insight, and length of experience that far exceeds the students' own." Teacher authenticity consists of (1) being explicit about how the teaching and learning experience is to be organized and the evaluative criteria used, (2) making sure one's words and actions as an instructor are consistent and congruent, (3) being ready to admit errors, (4) revealing aspects of oneself as a person outside an instructor's role, (5) taking students seriously by listening carefully to their concerns, anxieties, or problems, and (6) realizing the power of role modeling. All of these tasks must be done with care and consistency. As Brookfield (1990, p. 176) says, "Teaching is never easy, and of all the complex balances we try to attain, being credible and authentic in the right proportions is one of the most difficult." Successful climate setting aids such critical balancing during the first session.

Preparing to Meet with Learners

There are actually many decisions to be made and activities to be planned before the first meeting with learners. One of the first is development of a

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rationale statement that describes the learning experience's purposes, the instructional process, and how and why the experience will contribute to personal as well as professional development. Other activities include identification of desired learning competencies, determination of associated requirements, and acquisition of necessary learning resources such as books, articles, and audiovisual materials.

A useful device for organizing the various learning materials is a workbook or study guide. Here, many of the learning materials can be assembled, such as the course, workshop, or training syllabus; descriptions of suggested requirements; bibliographical citations; simulations, case studies, or skill-based learning activities; and special readings. An important advantage of creating a workbook or study guide is that it helps facilitate advanced planning and preparation for the various learning experiences to come. It also serves as an initial resource for both instructors and learners to update as needed. On a personal level, the workbook or study guide helps learners obtain a broad picture of the learning experience, and many appreciate having materials assembled in one convenient package.

Creating a Positive Learning Environment

Having completed any necessary preplanning activities, the next step is to establish a positive learning environment during the initial meeting with learners. Once again, there are a number of activities that often happen during the first few hours that an instructor and learners are together.

Initial Contact with Learners. Adults enroll in courses and workshops for a variety of reasons. Some enroll to update skills, others enroll for social reasons, while still others attend to address specific problems (Pratt, 1984). Whatever the reasons, it is important for an instructor to set a positive tone during the first session, since this is the time when learners form personal attitudes about the subject, the instructor, and the instructional process (Hiemstra and Sisco, 1990). The hope is that each learner leaves the first session with the same enthusiasm, as did Mary White in the opening vignette. But her reaction was not accidental; it resulted from a deliberate attempt by an instructor to set a positive tone.

What are some of the activities that an instructor can pursue to create a positive environment? One of the first is to arrange the physical classroom space so that it is conducive to teaching and learning. It is recommended that the instructor arrive at least thirty minutes before class time so that the room can be made more comfortable and inviting for adult learners. This task often involves rearranging chairs in a semicircle or around a conference table so that all participants can see each other, adjusting the room temperature to a comfortable level, making sure that any audiovisual equipment is operating and visible at a distance, checking the chalkboard for chalk, and seeing that the lighting is adjusted properly.

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Another suggestion is to bring along a hot pot to heat water for tea, coffee, and hot chocolate as well as assorted snacks for use during a break midway through the session. Once participants start arriving, a warm, personal greeting is always welcome. Handshakes and self-introductions are nice touches as they help set an informal tone and give the instructor some idea about who is in attendance. Adults generally appreciate these gestures, even if some are shy and reserved.

Creating the Three R's. After participants have arrived and are seated comfortably, the major activities for the first session begin. Learners are going to have many questions, feelings, and thoughts as the instructor calls the session to order, all of which become opportunities for positive climate setting if handled properly. An especially good way of beginning is to address the following three key questions during the first session (Sisco, 1987):

"Who Are We?" Asking this question and even summarizing learners' responses are good ways of helping learners get to know one another and realize that they share many of the same questions and feelings. The question and responses also help to start the process of working together and creating a relaxed, informal environment.

"Who Am I as the Instructor?" In asking and answering this question, an instructor can establish credibility and authenticity with learners by indicating his or her qualifications to lead the educational experience. A particularly productive way of answering is to describe one's educational and experiential background. This is also a good time to share personal beliefs about what constitutes good and bad instruction and how this course or workshop will be a positive learning experience, even though there may be a good deal of personal challenge involved.

"Why Are We Here?" This question is a good lead-in to describing the general focus of the educational experience by touching on the overall content, suggested objectives, and instructional process. Also, any important housekeeping items can be discussed, such as attendance requirements, breaks, location of restrooms, and policies on food, refreshments, and smoking.

By taking time to address these questions, an instructor can help participants develop three types of relationships--the three R's--that are important in any classroom experience (Hiemstra and Sisco, 1990): (1) relationships with other class members, many of whom become valuable resources, support givers, and close friends, (2) relationships with the instructor, built on mutual trust, respect, and credibility, and (3) relationships with the content, material, and resources of the course or workshop.

Each of the three types of relationships normally exists to some extent in any class setting; however, two of them are typically overlooked or not even considered by many instructors. Often, emphasis is placed on the con-

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tent or material of the educational experience with little attention directed to class members and the instructor. Any mention of goals, expectations, and learning activities is made almost incidentally, if at all. Very often learners may even be discouraged from asking pertinent questions about their backgrounds or potential roles in the learning experience. Good instructors of adults realize the value of climate setting and create a balance by encouraging establishment of these three types of relationships during the first class session.

Using Icebreakers. Icebreakers are techniques used at the beginning of the first session to reduce tension and anxiety, help acquaint participants with each other, foster involvement of all class members, and assist the instructor in getting to know class members and their range of experiences (Draves, 1984). They are very effective tools for initiating the three R's and can take many forms. The following are five icebreakers that all take less than an hour to complete, depending on the class size.

Self-Introductions. Participants introduce themselves and give reasons why they are attending the course or workshop.

Partner Introductions. Divide the group into pairs. A short interview is conducted by one partner of the other partner for five to ten minutes, then the roles are reversed. Partners then introduce each other to the entire group.

Name Chain. Participants introduce themselves one at a time to the group, each by saying his or her name and an adjective that begins with the same letter as the name. Each person in the chain must repeat all previous names and descriptors.

Six Critters. Display six different signs around the classroom, each with one of these words: owl, ostrich, rhinoceros, chameleon, fox, or lamb. Ask each participant to select the sign that best describes his or her dominant personality style. Divide participants into groups by the critter chosen and have group members introduce each other and list their critter's qualities. Then ask a recorder from each group to report the findings to the large group.

Character Descriptions. Have participants write down on pieces of paper their favorite foods, television programs, celebrities, animals, and musical artists. Then, one by one, have the participants relate these descriptions to the group and give their names. Be sure they explain the reasons for each choice.

There are many other icebreakers that instructors can use. Instructors should experiment with different types and even create their own variations.

Monitoring the Learning Environment. As the first class session unfolds, it is important to ensure that the learning environment remains positive. Be sure that the physical space remains comfortable and inviting by monitoring the room temperature so that it does not get too cold or hot. Observe the level of participation, noting that as the session progresses participants should become more involved in the proceedings. Periodically, use

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reinforcing statements that emphasize one's understanding of the anxiety that many people may face as they return to the classroom and one's commitment to everyone's success. These kinds of statements can bolster credibility and trustworthiness as an instructor. Finally, make sure that each participant leaves the first session, as Mary White did, wanting to return. As an old sage once said, "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink." The instructor's role is to make the horse thirsty.

Learners' Concerns in the First Class Session: Using the PERC Model

Learners have diverse feelings, thoughts, and questions as they begin a new learning experience. Pratt (1984) has devised a model for dealing with these feelings and questions about a course or workshop: "People need a predictable basis for interacting and will do so whether an instructor guides the process or not. Norms and expectations evolve naturally and inevitably. Yet, when the process is left to chance, problems arise due to ambiguity or misunderstanding. Such problems usually relate to purpose, expectations, roles, or content (PERC) and can be avoided or reduced if these elements are clarified at the outset" (Pratt, 1984, p. 7). In order to clarify these elements, Pratt devised a number of questions that should be raised in connection with the learning experience. He recommends that instructors take time during the first class session to address them. Exhibit 1 is a checklist of questions for instructors, adapted from Pratt's work.

By taking time during the first class session to create a positive and open climate for learning and by addressing the natural feelings and questions adults frequently bring to the classroom, an instructor can go a long way toward establishing an environment that promotes growth for everyone involved. Pratt's PERC model, together with the other suggestions noted earlier, offers a good road map to follow.


Instruction of adults can be a most gratifying experience, but because of their vast experiential base and potential for high motivation, the challenge of teaching and learning is especially great. At the same time, adults bring numerous feelings, questions, and doubts about a course or workshop that, left unheeded, can dampen the true potential for everyone involved. By anticipating these feelings and thoughts, organizing instructional efforts accordingly, and taking steps during the first class session to promote an effective climate, an instructor can ensure the overall success of the teaching and learning process. As Highet (1950, p. 57) observed more than forty years ago, "Togetherness is the essence of teaching."

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Exhibit 1. Instructor's Questions for the First Class Session

Directions: Use the following questions as guides for thinking about the first few hours that you spend with learners. The blank can be checked as you consider each one.


_____ How can you help individual students relate the learning experience to their individual needs?

_____ How can the course help students face personal difficulties at home or work?

_____ How will the course relate to other courses that students may currently have or have already taken?

_____ Why should a student take this particular course?


_____ What should you expect of students in terms of workload and the scheduling of time?

_____ How similar or dissimilar are the students and what are possible consequences of numerous dissimilarities?

_____ What individual problems or situations may exist for which you may need to work out special arrangements?


_____ How will you be perceived by various learners?

_____ What kinds of assistance can you give to various learners?

_____ What are your views about learners' disagreements with you in class and how can you communicate such views?

_____ How can you help learners feel at ease with their active planning and participation in learning experiences?


_____ How can you communicate to learners what they can expect to learn and what they should study?

_____ What can you say about the time required and allowed for practicing and applying course information?

_____ How can you help individual learners feel comfortable about their abilities to compete with other course participants?


Apps, J. W. Improving Practice in Continuing Education: Modern Approaches for Understanding the Field and Determining Priorities. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985.

Apps, J. W. "Foundations for Effective Teaching." In E. R. Hayes (ed.), Effective Teaching Styles. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no.43. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.

Brookfield, S. D. The Skillful Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

Draves, W. A. How to Teach Adults. Manhattan, Kans.: Learning Resources Network, 1984.

Hiemstra, R., and Sisco, B. Individualizing Instruction: Making Learning Personal, Empowering, and Successful. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

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Highet, G. The Art of Teaching. New York: Knopf, 1950.

Knowles, M. S. The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy. (Rev. ed.) New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Knox, A. B. Helping Adults Learn: A Guide to Planning, Implementing, and Conducting Programs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986.

Pratt, D. D. "Teaching Adults: A Conceptual Framework for the First Session." Lifelong Learning: An Omnibus of Practice and Research, 1984, 7(6), 7-9, 28, 31.

Sisco, B. R. "Adult Learning Processes." In K. E. Plank (ed.), Mountain States Journeyman and Apprentice Instructor Training Seminar Curriculum Manual. (2nd ed.) Laramie: University of Wyoming Press, 1987.


Burton R. Sisco is associate professor of adult education and coordinator of the adult education graduate program at the University of Wyoming, Laramie (currently he is Dean, College of Education, Rowan University). Active in professional associations and author of numerous publications, he also (was) is coeditor of the MPAEA Journal of Adult Education.

July, 2001

-- Return to Roger Hiemstra's opening page

-- Return to the Creating Environments for Effective Adult Learning Contents page

-- Go to Editor's Notes, Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine, Chapter Ten, or The Index.